Girl talk

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Walking and Talking Nicole Holofcener (15)

Picture Bride Kayo Hatta (12)

The Preacher's Wife Penny Marshall (U)

It's time, once again, to stroll breezily through Indie land. Not the place where boys with guitars make inscrutable pop records, but the place it's twinned with in mythical America: low-budget film-makers construct sweet movies there, in which the characters just sit around and chat about their love lives. It's always summer; denizens live in dreamy apartments with stripped floors and white muslin over the sunny windows even though they have slacker jobs; and there is always one character who, in spite of being unarguably gorgeous, can't get a decent date.

This well-trodden ground is the setting for Walking and Talking, yet Nicole Holofcener's movie is a fresh and wry confection. The lead role falls to Catherine Keener as Amelia (the Unarguably Gorgeous But Unlucky In Love archetype), a 29-year-old New Yorker who is best friends with trainee shrink Laura (Stressed-Out Young Woman Who Can't See That Everything She Ever Wanted Is Right In Front Of Her). But Laura has moved out of their shared apartment and got engaged to goateed corporate jewellery designer Frank (Hack Arty Type Who Is In Fact Genuinely Creative). This leaves Amelia living alone, jousting matily with her ex-boyfriend Andrew (Nice Guy With A Hidden Sexual Hang-Up), and quirkily dating the bum-fluffed video-store clerk who is obsessed with horror movies (the excellent Kevin Corrigan: Weirdo Who Turns Out To Be Sensitive).

So far, so formulaic. The critic's crystal ball reveals that the strained female friendship at the film's centre must be resolved in a blizzard of tearful womanly I LOVE YOUs, preferably in a kitchen - and so it is. But what happens in between is engaging and amusing: the script is biting on the dynamics between the sexes and the couple-singleton triangle (Amelia sees Laura and Frank having a spat and chirps: "You guys fight? Cool!"), and Keener in particular is outstandingly likeable - vulnerable, cynical, sexy and funny all at once. Holofcener has fashioned an enjoyable, old- fashioned date movie about how you grow up after you're already supposed to be an adult.

One thing Holofcener's lovelorn characters don't try is joining a mail- order photo-dating agency. Such institutions have been around for longer than you might think, as proven by Kayo Hatta's Picture Bride. In the early 20th century, photography modernised the tradition of arranged marriages in Asia, and hundreds of Japanese women were boated over to Hawaii to marry workers in the sugar-cane fields, on the strength of a letter and snapshot. This is what happens to Riyo (Youki Kudoh), an orphaned Japanese girl. Trouble is, when she arrives in Hawaii, her intended turns out to be 20 years older than his picture. Riyo, hugely disappointed, immediately resolves to save up enough money to go back to Japan.

The rest of the film is about the gradual taming of this resolution, as Riyo comes to love her husband and accept magical Hawaii as her home. Sound too good (not to mention chauvinistic) to be interesting? Well, there is tragedy along the way, as Riyo's new-found friend Kanya dies in the burning fields trying to rescue her wandering baby. But since Kanya returns as a benevolent ghost, the dramatic force of this horror is dissipated. The acting is fine, except that nearly everyone on screen seems to be having too good a time to convince the audience of the real hardships of the sugar-cane workers (who earned the princely sum of $11 a month). And Claudio Rocha's stunningly lush photography invites aesthetic admiration rather than emotional involvement with the characters. Great atmosphere; precious little feeling.

You could never accuse Whitney Houston of under-emoting. When miming to her songs on film, she wobbles her lower lip in time with the vibrato. This means that she's really feeling the song. You want to say to her: "Whitney, baby, if your performance is making you that sad, why don't you stop? It's been depressing the pants off the rest of us for years." But she presses on, like a sparrow on amyl nitrate, stuffing as many pointless runs up and down the scales as she can into each syllable. It's the same in The Preacher's Wife, the latest Whitney movie-product designed, among other things, to sell the latest Whitney CD featuring the soundtrack songs.

The Preacher's Wife is a gospel-hued Christmas comedy. Never mind that Christmas happens to be over, there's Whitney product to shift. Whitney is the titular spouse, it's coming up to Yuletide and preacher Henry (Courtney B Vance) has got problems: his son's best friend has been taken into care; one of his teenage parishioners has been wrongly fitted up for armed robbery; greasy property developer Joe Hamilton (Gregory Hines) wants to tear down his church; oh, and his marriage is at breaking-point, too. He prays to God for help - no sooner done than an angel falls from the sky. But Henry doesn't believe he's an angel, and Whitney takes an erotic shine to the newcomer.

Everything that is most emetic about Hollywood is here: kids' nativity plays, stupid hack moralising, an evil plug for Microsoft, and endless ear-punishing displays by Whitney, who happens to be leader of the gospel choir in Henry's church. But the angel is played by Denzel Washington, who delivers his hokey lines with such twinkly understatement that he almost redeems the whole mess. This is great comic acting, against all the odds. Still, the biggest laugh comes last. As the angel walks away in the final shot, the camera pans out to show that the name of the urban thoroughfare is Elm Street, as in Wes Craven's seminal horror movie. Yes, Denzel, it's been a nightmare: get the hell out while you cann

All films go on release tomorrow

Nicole Holofcener is interviewed overleaf

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